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In Egypt, Digital Maps Start a Conversation About Harassment that Continues In the Street

BY Lisa Goldman | Friday, November 30 2012

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The February 2011 molestation of CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square raised international awareness of Egypt's serious problem with sexual harassment, but for the vast majority of local women it has been a daily ordeal for many years. Many describe it as a "crisis" and a "plague." Veiled and unveiled, rich and poor, old and young — upward of 85 percent of Egyptian women report having experienced sexual harassment. Despite wide media coverage in both English and Arabic of particularly high profile incidents as far back as 2006, the problem seems only to be worsening.

A 2006 demonstration against sexual harassment in Cairo (credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy/Flickr)

There was a notable hiatus during the halcyon days of the Egyptian uprising in January-February 2011, when Tahrir Square became a safe zone for women. But over the last year or so the situation has, if anything, become worse. Tahrir is once again an uncomfortable place for women that often becomes dangerous. Only last month, France 24 reporter Sonia Dridi was attacked while reporting from the square and narrowly rescued by her colleague, Ashraf Khalil.

The devastating effect of having to live with daily catcalls, groping and the threat of gang molestation is told through the eyes of three Egyptian women from various socio-economic backgrounds in Bus 678, a prize-winning dramatic film that was released in 2010. A subtitled version of the film, which offers great insight into Egyptian society, is now on YouTube.

That same year Rebecca Chiao, an American development worker who has lived in Cairo since 2004, co-launched Harassmap. The project began as a volunteer grassroots initiative that she founded with some friends and launched from her apartment. The media — both Egyptian and international — noticed immediately.

"We got a lot of media attention — I'm not sure why — and we were overwhelmed," said Chiao, in an interview with techPresident that was conducted via Skype. "I think the map is something kind of compelling. It strikes people as a good story. When we meet with media people we repeat over and over that we focus on community research and outreach, but what comes out in the reports is the map. So I have the feeling that the map is a media hook."

Built on the Ushahidi platform, Harassmap provides a visualization of reported incidents of sexual harassment that are collected via SMS, voicemail, Twitter and a web form. The trilingual (Arabic, English and French) interactive map can be sorted via categories defining types of harassment, ranging from ogling and comments to touching and rape. Clicking on a category brings up a list that numbers the incidents and lists them, together with the original report and a note indicating whether or not it was verified.

According to its annual report (available in PDF), in 2011 the site had 88,851 unique visitors and 239,821 page views. There is a Harassmap Twitter account (@harassmap) and a #harassmap hashtag. The organization also launched a Twitter campaign in 2010 with the hashtag #endSH (end sexual harassment).

In a TEDx talk (below) Chiao, who is now married to an Egyptian, describes an incident she experienced several years ago in Cairo: A man exposed himself to her while she was standing in modest dress on a crowded street in an upscale area at mid-day. To her shock, no-one interfered or made any attempt to help her. Her male friends took the tack of blaming the victim with suggestions that she dress differently or stay off the streets altogether.

Reporting these incidents to the police is unhelpful or counter-productive, says Chiao, because the rule of law is very weak in Egypt.

"A lot of police are harassers themselves," explained Chiao. "The police are not trained and have no oversight. Women who show up to lodge a complaint at a police station meet huge resistance; the best they can hope for is that an officer will offer to beat the harasser up."

But the police will enforce a law if they feel they are personally affected by it. Chiao felt that since legal procedure was demonstrably useless, "direct engagement was the only way." The idea is to shift attitudes away from tolerance for sexual harassment — and away from blaming the woman, instead of the harasser.

Using the map as a visual aid, trained volunteers regularly fan out in various neighborhoods to engage the locals. In Egyptian cities, certain people are fixtures on the street and have significant influence on the character of the neighborhood. There are the doormen, or "bawabeen," who sit at the entrance of residential buildings, watch passersby and know everyone; or the curb squatters — men who stake out a stretch of curb turf and collect a fee from car owners to park and guard their vehicles; the regular customers at the ubiquitous coffee shops, who sit at outdoor tables for hours playing backgammon and drinking tea. If these men refuse to tolerate sexual harassment of women who pass through their neighborhood, chances are it will become a no-harassment zone.

"We find that after we’ve talked to them three or four times, the local people will agree to protect women on the streets of their area from harassment," said Chiao.

The volunteers, emphasized Chiao, come from all socio-economic backgrounds. "Our research manager is from [the Cairo slum area of] Imbaba," she said. "Her mother goes out to the mosque and talks to people, hands out flyers and tells them to talk to their sons and daughters. She also leads Koran study groups."

Harassmap offers follow up to people who submit complaints, including referrals to psychologists and attorneys as well as self defense classes, with the latter proving particularly popular.

Chiao freely acknowledges the usefulness of mapping. Presenting a visualization of the problem is an important tool in starting a conversation about harassment.

"People don’t have to read a report. They get a visual with a red dot that zooms in on their neighborhood, so there is no need to explain and no way they can say this does not happen in their neighborhood."

But she emphasizes that the actual work is accomplished via old-fashioned grassroots community engagement. Harassmap focuses 90 percent of its effort on community outreach.

"I do get frustrated that the media overlooks the importance of our community work. We understand that the map is sexy, but we wish they’d cover more of the outreach efforts," she said.

Since the revolution, said Chiao, there has been an increased awareness of sexual harassment and a surge in volunteerism.

"But we are finding that they’re not experienced in development work or working on social issues," said Chiao, adding that there were disagreements about methodology — like deploying vigilante groups, or advocating gender-separated public transportation. "We disagree with segregation and we promote non violent intervention," she said, gently.

Awareness does not necessarily translate into change, but Chiao is an experienced development worker with pragmatic goals. Change, she says, will come incrementally and at the grassroots level.

Meanwhile, Harassmap just secured funding for research purposes and their methodology is spreading, with initiatives in Palestine, Bangladesh, Yemen, Lebanon and Pakistan.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.